After the Trump administration’s outright hostility to women, a broad-based effort to address the erosion of women’s rights and “build back better” is critical, say feminists.
Note: On March 8, International Women’s Day, President Biden signed the first-ever executive order to establish the White House Gender Policy Council. By establishing the council, Biden said, his administration shows its commitment “to ensure that every domestic and foreign policy we pursue rests on a foundation of dignity and equity for women.”
Below, Tina Tchen, former executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls during the Obama administration, discusses logistics and impact of the council: how it will work, what it will do, and why it is so desperately needed.
The day before their inauguration, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris announced the formation of a new White House Gender Policy Council to lead a government-wide effort to address gender disparities in the U.S. and abroad. The council will guide and coordinate government policy that impacts women and girls in a wide range of areas, including economic security, health care, racial justice and gender-based violence.
“Too many women are struggling to make ends meet and support their families, and too many are lying awake at night worried about their children’s economic future” said Biden. “This was true before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the current global public health crisis has made these burdens infinitely heavier for women all over this country. The work of this council is going to be critical to ensuring we build our nation back better by getting closer to equality for women and to the full inclusion of women in our economy and our society.”
The White House Gender Policy Council will be co-chaired by Jennifer Klein and Julissa Reynoso—both of whom have long histories of women’s rights advocacy. Klein is currently the chief strategy and policy officer at TIME’S UP. Reynoso is the incoming assistant to the president and chief of staff to Dr. Jill Biden.
“I look forward to working with these deeply knowledgeable and experienced public servants to address the challenges facing women and girls, and build a nation that is more equal and just,” said Harris. “All Americans deserve a fair shot to get ahead, including women whose voices have not always been heard. Our administration will pursue a comprehensive plan to open up opportunity and uphold the rights of women in our nation and around the world.”
The council will ensure a government-wide focus on uplifting the rights of girls and women and will work closely with other White House policy councils, including the Domestic Policy Council, the National Economic Council, and the National Security Council—because “every issue is a women’s issue,” said Ambassador Susan Rice, incoming director of the Domestic Policy Council. “This council and its two qualified and tested co-chairs will be key in marshaling every part of our government and working directly with communities to ensure all women and girls are entitled to equal rights and opportunities.”
After the Trump administration’s outright hostility to women and their failures to address the devastating impact of COVID-19 and the resulting recession that has disproportionately impacted women in the workforce, a broad-based effort to address the erosion of women’s rights and “build back better” is critical, say many feminists.
TIME’S UP CEO Tina Tchen knows the importance of an all-of-government approach when it comes to uplifting women and girls—given that Tchen served as executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls during the Obama administration.
Ms. reporter Carrie Baker sat down with Tchen to discuss logistics and impact of the newly-formed White House Gender Policy Council—how it will work, what it will do, and why it is so desperately needed.
Carrie Baker: Why is the White House Gender Policy Council important?
Tina Tchen: What’s so significant about the council is it will focus on gender policy within the White House, at a level commensurate with the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council and the National Security Council.
It’s what we had in the Obama administration with the White House Council on Women and Girls [eliminated by the Trump administration], so it borrows from that model, which was to create a council of all of the federal agencies and all the White House policy offices, but to look at everything through a gender lens. It will look at federal government both domestically and globally, health policy, economic policy and labor policy. So I think it goes beyond [the Obama council in] name, because the Gender Policy Council is critical in recognizing the many ways in which we show up in gender, not just women and girls, and so that’s an acknowledgment of that.
Baker: What kind of staff will the council have?
Tchen: It will have dedicated staff. Julissa Reynoso will also have a second job as chief of staff to Dr. Biden, but her co-chair Jen Klein will have the job of being full-time focused on gender policy. And that represents an even greater investment, and I think there will be more staff to come, people to address specific issues like gender-based violence or black, indigenous and people of color. I think that we will see some additional support there, which represents the Biden-Harris administration’s tremendous investment in the importance of these issues and really tells us a lot about the importance that they place on intersectionally addressing the issues of gender across the federal government.
Baker: Will they have a budget?
Tchen: Probably not, in the sense that they’re all in the executive office of the president, working in the White House, so there are separate budgets within that. When we did our work, we did our work through the agencies—meaning, it shows up in the budget around women’s health initiatives at Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), or the budget to address sexual assault on campus, within the Department of Education or in the Department of Justice. And what the Gender Policy Council does is sit at the center of the government with the president and his senior staff and make sure that those things are happening in the places where people actually feel programs, the way programs are really executed and felt by folks. What is HHS doing around COVID relief in a way that’s going to address the needs of Black women, right? And so what we need is someone to push and make sure that those things are happening across the federal government, keeping an eye on the impact on gender equity across the board.
Baker: How does the council function?
Tchen: For the White House Council on Women and Girls, the members were the secretaries of every federal agency, every Cabinet level agency, and all of the major White House policy offices. And the secretary was to designate a person to be in meetings in his or her stead, because we don’t expect the secretaries to be at every meeting. The secretaries designated people within their agency to own this portfolio. We would have both regular meetings of the entire group and also there were a lot of times when I would go to the agencies and get a briefing from folks on their issues. So I would expect this new council to operate similarly.
We also had task forces. For example, we had the task force to protect students against campus sexual assault, which included the Department of Justice because they owned some of the enforcement of Title IX, obviously the Department of Education because they own Title IX, but then we included HHS because HHS and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have enormous amounts of research around violence and trauma and trauma-informed care. And then we involved the Department of Defense because military academies were experiencing the same issues and they’re governed under a different structure, not under the Department of Education. So that’s the way in which we had a central organizing force within the White House to pull all those different threads across the federal government together, which can be really helpful.
In federal agencies—and we do this in the women’s movement as well—a lot of our issues are siloed: We have child care over here and paid leave over there, but women don’t live their lives in silos. A single woman is trying to figure out schooling for her kids and her job and the fact that she’s not getting equal pay but she doesn’t have any paid leave and she can’t find out about child care and her elderly parents are living in her house during COVID.
That’s how women live their lives, and having someone within the White House who will look at all those issues in the ways in which women and girls around the world live their lives in that intersectional way, and live their lives both through their gender and their race and their ethnicity and all the history that comes with that is critically important.
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Baker: What does it mean that the Biden-Harris administration made this one of their final transition actions?
Tchen: It was clearly something important enough to do very early, even before Inauguration Day. Obviously it would’ve been terrific to see it at any point in time, but I think that tells me how important they view this issue and I’m really excited to see what they’re going to be able to accomplish.
Baker: What do you think about the selection of Jennifer Klein and Julissa Reynoso to head the Council?
Tchen: I’m thrilled. You know, obviously, Jen Klein leaves TIME’S UP so that’s somewhat bittersweet, because she’s been our chief policy and strategy officer, but I’ve known Jen well before her time at TIME’S UP. We worked together during the Obama administration when she was working for then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Global Women’s Issues Office at the State Department. She is really well recognized as an expert on both domestic and global gender issues. There are a few people with the breadth of experience and depth of knowledge that Jen has, so she’ll be terrific.
And Julissa brings this incredible global experience, having been an ambassador, having worked on issues like immigration and her lived experience. I think that they will together will really be an excellent team and I could not be more thrilled with the promise that they together hold for this Gender Policy Council.
Baker: How did the idea for a White House Council to address women’s issues come about?
Tchen: To prepare for the 1995 Beijing Conference that Secretary First Lady Clinton attended, there was an inter-agency process, but it was not a long-standing council. Then the Clinton administration created a White House Office on Women’s Policy that existed as a separate office within the White House. When the Bush administration came in, that office went away.
Then during the Obama transition period in ’08 and ’09, I remember the women’s community very much wanted a re-establishment of the office. We took a look at it and decided to actually go to the council model because what we didn’t want to have happen was to create a separate office, because we thought that the other agencies would say, “Oh, it’s that office’s problem, not mine,” even if it was a gender policy issue only within that Department. Our Cabinet stepped up big time. They all embraced it, even down to folks like the Department of Transportation, where we did anti-trafficking efforts.
Baker: Are there specific things that you hope the new council will do?
Tchen: Well, there’s the pandemic, the racial crisis, and I’ve been saying there’s a crisis in caregiving. We have seen that women, and especially women of color, have disproportionately borne the brunt of these crises and we need to address those. And President Biden has talked about the importance of creating a caregiving infrastructure and a caregiving economy, because that is the way to both get people back to work, by providing people with affordable child care, paid leave and senior care, and help give workers the protections they need.
Domestic workers are frequently harassed. They don’t have the protections. They are outside the protections of the formal labor economy. We can bring them in and create good-paying jobs, building that caregiving infrastructure is key. At TIME’S UP it’s a priority for us. We work for safe, fair and equitable work because that’s the only way to actually keep sexual harassment from happening. In order for those conditions to be there you have to break down the structural barriers that keep women and people of color from staying in jobs and making workplaces and workplace culture safe, fair, and equitable and so you need caregiving.
That’s an issue that requires multiple agencies. You need the Department of Treasury because there are income tax and other tax regulations involved. You obviously need the Department of Labor involved, because you’re talking about new labor regulations. You need HHS involved because that’s where both child care dollars flow through and support services for long-term care. You need the Department of Commerce to help work with small businesses and the Small Business Administration because we want to make sure small businesses have the support that they need. You need Education because universal pre-K is a part of the solution to the caregiving puzzle.
So what Jen and Julissa will be able to do at the Gender Policy Council is pull those threads together around what I hope will be a very comprehensive holistic caregiving plan and approach.
Baker: How can Ms. readers support this new Council?
Tchen: As excited as I am about this Gender Policy Council and the promise that it brings, what I learned from my time in the Obama administration is the White House can’t do it alone. No matter what these policies are, some of it requires Congress. Some of it requires the private sector to step up.
And this really requires everyone to stay as active as they did through the last election cycle. Unfortunately, this is not a time to go home and rest, especially as we are dealing with trying to dig ourselves out of these crises that the country is in. It requires us all to stay involved and advocate for the policies that we care about and be loud about the things that we need.
To go back to 2009, there was an unreasonable expectation that the new President Barack Obama could do it all himself, and no president can. And especially in this complex moment, all of us and especially Ms. readers who care a lot about these issues, make sure you stay as engaged, as informed as you can, which TIME’S UP can help with.
But I do think we’re in a moment where possibilities for transformational change in our workplaces exist. Because of the pandemic, because of the pressures on businesses and corporate CEOs, they have their own self-interest in getting caregiving to their workers, so their workers can show up for work, to address sexual harassment in the workplace because they’ve seen not only does it drive away talent, it puts their companies at risk. So employers themselves see the need. If we push hard enough I think we could potentially really change the way our workplaces look and feel and have them be places that really invest in their workers.
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